Film Review – The Good Dinosaur
The Good Dinosaur
After the critical success of Inside Out, Pixar Animation Studios returns with the second outing of 2015, The Good Dinosaur. While Inside Out is considered to be one of the very best films the animation studio has put out, this prehistoric tale feels like the work of the B-team. It doesn’t help that the production has gone through some tough stretches. Reports indicate that it was in development for nearly six years, and went through a lot of revisions to the story. The original director (Bob Peterson) was replaced (by Peter Sohn), and much of the voice talent was recast. I mention the behind the scenes issues because what ends up on screen seems half baked; a lot of good ideas and pretty visuals stand next to a plot that is severely lacking in depth.
For example, the premise has a very interesting notion: what would’ve happened if the asteroid that struck the earth and killed the dinosaurs unexpectedly missed? This is a fantastic starting point. Would the dinosaurs have evolved and matured, both in physicality and intelligence? The narrative says yes, so much so that the dinosaurs actually became smart enough to build homes and farm the land.
That’s right, of all the possibilities this idea could have sprang forth, the best we get is dinosaurs discovering agriculture. They construct huts and plow fields, harvesting corn for the winter. Yet the dinosaurs (in this case, the Apatosaurus) still walk on four legs with no anthropomorphic tendencies. How do they tie wood together to build their homes? How do they construct fences if they don’t have hands? It’s the same problem that Cars (2006) and Cars 2 (2011) had but to a smaller degree. Intriguing ideas not fully fleshed out.
The journey of the main character is even more thinly drawn. Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) is the youngest of his family. While his siblings show strength and promise, Arlo is a ball of fear and neurosis. He is scared of anything that breathes, no matter how big or small the creature may be. Heck, he’s scared of anything that doesn’t breathe either. Arlo’s insecurity for everything makes him an outcast in his family, even though his parents Poppa (Jeffrey Wright) and Momma (Frances McDormand) love him.
Of course, this means that Arlo will have to go through an adventure to overcome his fear. Through a series of events, Arlo finds himself far from home, in an unknown place with many dangers surrounding him. His only companion is Spot, a young prehistoric human he meets, and who sounds and acts just like a dog. Do you see the switch up here: the dinosaur is the sophisticated, smart creature, and the human is the lesser intelligence. Clever.
The screenplay (credited to Meg LeFauve) has Arlo and Spot making their way back in an Odyssey-like fashion. Their run ins with various friends and foes is episodic, and the flow between each chapter is lightly stitched. But each sequence hammers down the theme in a heavy way: to get anywhere in life, you have to take some risk. It’s pounded in over and over again, the repetitive nature wearing down on us as the story moves forward.
Of all of Disney/Pixar’s work, this is by far the most absurd. The comedic tangents try to work out of sheer strangeness. Many of the characters Arlo and Spot run into are defined in arbitrary ways. Some are better than others: a chance meeting between a family of T-Rexes subverts our expectations of how T-Rexes are supposed to act. But a few feel like they were created after a night of heavy drinking. A chance encounter with a Styracosaurus and his bird friends left me befuddled and confused. The most outrageous example occurs when Arlo and Spot accidentally eat some rotten berries. The hallucinatory after effects was funny but completely out of place. I wonder how parents will explain to their kids how a dinosaur and his human companion got high in a family movie.
Little kids (I’m talking 6 or under) will find enjoyment in The Good Dinosaur because of the photo-realistic environments and the cartoonish nature of the main characters. Arlo and Spot do have chemistry as a duo, and a closing scene will have some reaching for the nearest tissue. However, the shortcomings of the writing make this one of the lesser Disney/Pixar films. Many of the set pieces call to mind previous work, especially The Lion King (1994), and the random episodic nature of the plot didn’t gel together well as a whole. At one point, I was watching a National Geographic special, the next I was hurtled into a remake of City Slickers (1991). Maybe I’m being too tough on this one, but from a studio that has set such a high standard in quality and excellence, this fell way short.